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Four Considerations for Schools Building Makerspaces

This post is a collaboration between Sarah Margalus and Jay Margalus.

Introduction

As I’ve talked about in the past, makerspaces in schools, particularly K-12 schools, face many challenges and barriers to success. Many of these have to do with the newness of spaces, and the lack of knowledge and awareness around what makes a makerspace successful. This leads to poorly executed spaces, and ultimately, some institutions to come to the conclusion that makerspaces don’t work.

Makerspaces tend to work well when the spaces reinforces the community’s interests and learning. Through conversations with many makerspace leaders, I have realized one of the hardest questions to answer is *Why does your institution want a makerspace?

If you don’t already have an answer to this that clearly connects the space to community outcomes, this should become your first consideration. Sometimes, even with clear visions in mind, schools experience unexpected difficulties with their spaces.  

I’ve come up with four key considerations for schools looking at developing new spaces. These can be used as criteria for administrators to ask the kinds of “known unknown” questions when dealing with vendors or other groups who are often solicited in the assistance of the development of makerspaces. I hope this helps some institutions avoid the big problems that I’ve seen while consulting with K-12 institutions on the development of these new labs.

Four Considerations

1. Practicality:  Do they meet the needs practically to what you are doing in your school?

Think of the machines, the space size/facilities support, and your school community. Each of these vectors are important considerations in the practicality of integrated a makerspace into your institution.

Machines

  • Are the machines being proposed to add to your space practical?
  • Do people want them?
  • What are the people in your institution’s community already doing, and how can the machines that you’re purchasing support that?

This is a big place where I see schools fail, as they chase after the newest fun technology instead of the most practical technology that supports digital-physical learning. Often, this is driven by vendors who are more interested in selling the most expensive piece of equipment, rather than the right one for you.

Facilities

  • How well does the available space match the scope of the makerspace? In other words, is the space large enough to house the tools, the projects that will follow, and the other equipment that the tools necessitate?
  • Is the space appropriately ventilated and/or equipped to handle vent-out (if you’re getting a laser cutter)?
  • Is the space large enough to facilitate spreading out projects and collaboration?
  • Does the teacher have line-of-sight to each student who’s taking the class?
  • Are the ceilings tall enough for better air circulation?

There are many questions about the room that you’re putting a makerspace in, and I’d strongly suggest consulting with your facilities management folks before putting one in.

School Community

  • Is the community prepared to integrate a makerspace?
  • Are your teachers prepared to support this kind of endeavor?
  • What are the steps that need to happen before you can get true teacher buy-in to use the space, develop the space, and make it successful as a community?

Oftentimes, there’s a “if you build it, they will come” attitude about makerspace. What’s often forgotten is that teachers have very little time, and therefore, it’s not practical to ask them to figure out how to use all the new technology in a space. Think about the people you have at your school, and how you can get them to the point where they have the potential to become super users of your makerspace. What is the path forward?

2. Safety: Have you considered the safety and well-being of your audience?

Related to some of the points above, but requiring its own discussion point, is the safety of a space. Vendors will often try to sell schools on expensive machines like laser cutters with filters, or large-scale 3D printers, etc, without having visited the site where the machines will be installed. This can pose a significant problem, as the machines in makerspaces may seem to be safe/consumer-oriented, but in fact, exist in the Wild West when it comes to consumer electronics.

Here are some things to look out for:

Particulates and Odors

  • Numerous 3D printers, without enclosures, in a high-density area. 3D printers can produce particulates and odors that can be hazardous/harmful to health. Have you considered the appropriate ventilation for your machines?
  • Chemicals. Some 3D printers require the use of chemicals in order to get to a finished product. Have you considered the odors introduced by these chemicals? Do you have the appropriate gloves/eyewear/eyewash stations in place to take care of these problems?
  • Lasers. Laser cutters are often sold with filters, but filters are often not practical for schools. I like to compare this to your furnace. How often do you remember to replace the filter on your furnace? Now think about a similar kind of system, but applied to a machine that could introduce harmful matter into the air your breathe.

Line-of-Sight

  • Can the teacher see what’s happening everywhere in the classroom of your space?
  • Are there fire extinguishers within line-of-sight to machines that are fire hazards?

It’s critical that a teacher can see what is going on in every nook and cranny of a makerspace, because lots of things have the potential of going wrong.

3. Costs: Have you considered the hidden costs of the equipment including filters, enclosures?

So you’ve bought your machines, but now you need to maintain them. You need to buy consumables, repair them, and continue purchasing components that ensure that regularly replaceable parts are kept new. Some possible costs:

  • Laser cutter filters. These can run out every 3-6 months, depending on material you’re cutting, and can run upwards of $1,500 per replacement. Consider getting vent out for your laser which, although a large up front cost, may save you money in the long run.
  • Enclosures. If you’ve purchased a 3D printer without an enclosure, it may need one for both air quality safety, as well as to ensure prints do not warp as they’re being printed over time.
  • Consumables. Things like 3D printing filament (or resin), wood and acrylic for laser cutters, and so forth, can be expensive. Have you considered what this cost might look at throughout the fiscal year?
  • Replacement parts. Laser cutters require tube replacements occasionally (which can be very expensive), 3D printer hot ends inevitably wear, vinyl cutters need new blades, and so on. Have you considered the cost of replacement parts based on anticipated use of each machine? Do you have a gate in place to check back in on your assumptions halfway through the year to ensure your machines aren’t down and going unused?

4. Education: Have you considered how to integrate this into your school’s curriculum?

The wrong way to go about building a makerspace is having someone else drop a curriculum on your teachers. They don’t have time for that. It is more helpful to integrate existing curriculum and maker skills  into the use of the makerspace. Outlined below is the right way to begin integrating a makerspace into your school’s curriculum.

Existing Curriculum

How should teachers use this great new learning space? One way to ease entry is to encourage teachers to do what they are already doing, but do it in the makerspace instead. To get started, ask:

  • What am I already teaching that integrates making, crafting, or digital fabrication?
  • What science lessons already incorporate engineering practices?
  • How can I extend learning about a content area concepts by asking students to make something in response to what they have learned?
  • How can I give students a chance to explore the design process as related to other projects?

Maker Skills

Teachers already do a great job teaching students how to meet learning standards. Maker skills cross content areas and fit within the making process. This means that there are not necessarily specific projects or tools that must be present within a space, but certain skills used to make projects. These skills are based on a review of learning standards across content areas and current best instructional practices. If teachers are unsure what else to teach while making projects, they can start here and imagine what students could learn within the makerspace.

  • Questioning. Often teachers ask the questions, but students benefit from learning to ask questions as well. Imagine teaching students to ask things like,
    • What does this do?
    • What do other people have to say about this?
    • Why is this important?
    • How do these ideas fit together?
    • What if I changed this part?
    • What are other people doing in their designs?
    • Why does this look this way?

These types of questions support learning in reading, research, design, engineering, and computer sciences to name a few.

  • Clarifying. Clarifying is a useful skill in reading, but it is also helpful when taking aim and setting goals for a project, empathizing, and clarifying success criteria for a project. They can also clarify learning and refine understanding following a project or experience.
  • Systems thinking. Students learn about parts of systems, what each part does, how each part fits into the larger function, and explore what happens when different parts are changed.
  • Reiterating. Makerspaces provide a natural environment for trying and then trying again. This is an important skill that can be tricky to teach in the classroom due to time constraints. Many science experiments, engineering challenges, and reimagined art projects call for iterating again and again. This learning lends itself well to the writing process, or anytime a revision process can be used to improve a final outcome.

I hope this blog post is useful to teachers and administrators looking to build makerspaces. If you’re one of these individuals, and are looking for assistance, please reach out to me here. I work with schools, libraries, and other educational institutions to build makerspaces that are practical, safe, cost-effective, and, most importantly, meet the educational needs of your institution.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

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